A titan in the world of theatre
BY THE time he reached his teens Peter Hall already knew he wanted to become a theatre director. But in the end he became so much more. As the man who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford and was director of the National Theatre for 15 years, Sir Peter was a theatrical colossus who dominated the acting world for more than 50 years.
He received multiple awards, including two Tonys for The Homecoming in 1967 and Amadeus in 1981, a Laurence Olivier award in 1999 and a knighthood in 1977. And he will be remembered as a champion of public funding for the arts.
Born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Peter Reginald Frederick Hall was the son of Reginald, a stationmaster and his wife Grace, who instilled in the young Peter the importance of “getting on” in life.
At the start of the Second World War the family moved to Cambridge where Sir Peter won a scholarship to Perse Grammar School before carrying out National Service with the RAF. Afterwards he read English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, but admitted to feeling out of place “as a scholarship boy among the Old Etonians”.
It was while he was at university that he made his directorial bow with a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Point Of Departure, and by the time he had staged his last student play he’d already been invited to make his professional debut at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, in 1953.
But it was two years later, while working at London’s Arts Theatre, that his career really took off with the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Although he initially admitted that he “didn’t have the foggiest” what some of the play was about, his production made him British theatre’s man of the moment: Vogue and the BBC wanted to interview him, US playwright Tennessee Williams wanted him to direct his plays and offers of work flooded in.
Eventually, he settled on directing the stage version of the musical Gigi and promptly fell in love with the show’s star, French actress Leslie Caron. It was to be the start of a colourful and turbulent love life which saw him marry a further three times and produce six children.
In 1960 he was invited to run the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon but it was Sir Peter’s vision, ambition and tenacity which saw it grow into the company it is today.
It was an exciting time for the arts world but for Sir Peter the pressures soon began to take their toll. He suffered an emotional and physical breakdown, saw his marriage to Caron collapse and embarked on an affair with his assistant Jacky Taylor, who became wife No 2. Again, this marriage ended in divorce as did his third to opera singer Maria Ewing.
After eight years at the RSC, workaholic Hall briefly turned his attention to directing opera before taking on the role of director of the National Theatre in 1973. During his 15 years in charge he directed 33 productions and oversaw the National’s move to the South Bank.
He occasionally ventured into film and television, including directing Channel 4’s The Camomile Lawn. Even as he neared his 80th birthday he remained as passionate as ever about the stage and campaigned to get the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames funded and built, celebrating its opening in 2008.
His last production with the National was Twelfth Night in 2011, the same year he was diagnosed with dementia. He is survived by his fourth wife Nicki and by children Christopher, Jennifer, Edward, Lucy, Rebecca and Emma.
SAVIOUR: Sir Peter rebuilt UK theatre. Left, seen rehearsing with Sherrill Milnes